Focusing on the engrained and authoritarian structures that perpetuate the practice of FGM, the topic at the heart of Gloria Williams’ Bullet Hole is heartbreaking and vital – but the script lacks the dramatic arc necessary for the piece’s form (a work of fiction, as opposed to a piece of documentary-theatre) to feel appropriate.
Gloria Williams’ Bullet Hole tackles the barbaric practice of female gender mutilation – with a particular focus on the engrained and authoritarian structures that perpetuate it. Much like Charlene James’ Cuttin’ It (2016) but with more attention paid to intergenerational differences in outlook, the 90-minuter (in the smaller of the Park Theatre’s two spaces) raises awareness that the dangerous ritualised procedure still happens behind closed doors in the UK, almost always without the consent of the circumcised and despite its 1985 interdiction.
Williams plays the victim of this most unpalatable physical and emotional pain herself, here. Cleo’s seventh birthday ‘gift’ turned out to be type 3 Female Mutilation – and is now an adult on the run from a husband who brutally sexually assaults her. Her pursuit of reversal surgery has (oddly, perhaps) led her to the house of her militantly-traditional Aunt Winnie, where she’s kept prisoner in a bedroom on the expectation she’ll eventually ‘reassess’.
As awareness-boosting as Bullet Hole unequivocally is, its premise is so immediately harrowing and unrelenting that – for me – it doesn’t quite feel like the writer has left enough space for a dramatic arc to unfold. Though being plunged into such a weighty subject matter from the very first line sets hearts pounding (particularly having just walked in from a bar that was blasting out Britney and Atomic Kitten – no fault of Freedom Tongues or Naiad Productions admittedly, but Park may want to pay that a second thought…), the downside of no ‘stasis’ being established is what we go on to watch quickly feels a little circular and recurrent.
Structurally, the piece fast becomes Cleo, Winnie and her friend Eve ‘falling out’ (and the audience unanimously taking the side of Cleo), followed by a blackout (which add little other than hampering flow), followed by the gradual building of the next argument – which feels similar to the last. Watching a series of impassioned (if one-sided) debates is totally fine, but becomes frustrating when so few lead to resolutions or characters even, at least, becoming ‘woke’ to the counterpart’s perspective.
The writing presents Anni Domingo’s character of Winnie to be such an antagonist – to the unfalteringly ‘wicked’ extent that is almost akin to pantomime – that it’s difficult to understand a) why Cleo thought to ‘seek refuge’ in this person’s house in the first place, and b) why she doesn’t run out the door or overpower this elderly woman at the first possible opportunity. It jars for me, too, that Winnie plays the dual-role of being the piece’s sole ‘comic relief’ at various moments – she’s the only one to gain a number of audience laughs, and I struggle to understand Williams’ thinking behind that, considering what the character is supposed to stand for within the context of the play.
I guess I left Bullet Hole having been reminded of the practice’s horrific prevalence within my own country, but unconvinced its form (as a devised play, rather than a piece of documentary-theatre or piece of film) works. Other than affirming how horrific a ritual FGM is – which I’m confident no audience members were in any doubt over – I struggled to understand exactly what I, on top of that, I was supposed to take away from it.